Monday, January 23, 2017

My First Anime: Yuri!!! On Ice

I was kind of an asshat in high school.

Wait, let me back up. What I meant to say was, I’ve had a really rocky experience with anime throughout my life and I was even pretty cruel about it in my younger years. My poor little brother got the brunt of it. But he's not so little anymore and I don't give him lectures about how his favorite shows are inferior to western entertainment anymore. I guess we both grew up.

Ever since I can remember, I’ve been in love with visual storytelling. Movies, TV shows, theater; it’s in my blood, and it’s who I am. So you’d think when I’d run into varying types of media from varying cultures, I’d eat it right up. But until very recently, I was disinterested in anime. Very disinterested, until I watched Yuri!!! On Ice.

My first experiences with anime probably started like most American kids my age. We’d watch things like Dragon Ball Z or Inuyasha on Toonami way late at night. Back then, I was into it. It was something my brother and I would watch together on summer nights when we didn’t have to go to school the next morning. Heck, I distinctly remember my anxiety over Cell and the destruction he would bring. But sometime between then and high school, I did a 180.

I'm 9 years old again
I was disgusted by anime and I wasn’t very subtle about it either. I think, at that point, I was getting into really “serious” films and anime seemed like the complete opposite than the precious Oscarbaiting stories I was fond of. Around this point in time, shows like Naruto were big. I remember some of the things that would turn me off would be the odd noises characters would make in moments of distress or how the animation style would change according to the tone of the scene. I also had a huge problem with how female characters were so often depicted, even more sexualized and unrealistic than Hollywood movies. But I admit that some of my dislike probably stemmed from a certain form of racism. I openly preferred European media over Asian and thought nothing of it. If you pair all that up with the growing stereotype that anime fans were cringeworthy, I became intolerable. 

Me @ 16 Year Old Me
Luckily, once I got to college I started to open my mind a little bit. I studied film there, and a lot of my peers were anime fans.They weren't gross, greasy boys with busty statues of underage girls, and they didn't run to class with their arms flailing behind their backs. Well, some of them were. But after rooming with a girl who did cosplay for a lot of anime shows I’ve never heard of, I started to readjust how I saw the medium. After taking a class on Animation throughout the world, I started to respect it even more. My partner has a “weeb past” as I lovingly tease him about, and he’d describe to me the plots of some of his favorite shows. I found them to be super compelling and complex. However, I was convinced that while anime has the capability to tell larger, more fantastic, and complex stories than western television, I could never enjoy it. I was just too annoyed by the unrealistic body types and over-dramatic voice acting.

That’s where I was until literally two weeks ago. I had heard of Yuri!!! On Ice on Tumblr and got the gist that it was the queerest thing on TV right now. I didn’t know much, but I remember my dash going nuts one night after a certain obscured kiss scene. I was sitting on the sidelines, cheering that fandom on as my own was being burnt to the ground. The Sherlock fandom was being torn apart by the disappointing new series, and I was in desperate need for some genuine, happy gay storytelling. Not queerbaiting trash or a traumatic experience gay story where someone always dies. I just wanted a love story that was light but impactful. So, I decided to give Yuri!!! On Ice a try. 

*A Choir of Angels Sing*

I never knew how desperate for this story I was. I don’t know a thing about how gay relationships are normally treated in anime or Japanese media. I also don’t know a thing about how stories are told in anime. But I do know a whole lot about how American media treats gay relationships, and I know a whole heck of a lot about how stories are told in general. This is how Yuri!!! On Ice holds up against that understanding. 

Ugh, gender roles, am I right? Who needs ‘em? Yuri!!! On Ice sure doesn’t. Figure skating has never been a particularly masculine in the traditional sense. But YOI pushes the bounds. Our favorite silver-haired Russian talks about a program he designed when he had long hair to display both masculine and feminine genders. I am a big fan of androgyny. 

Yuri does his own bit of gender role busting, too. Before his face off against Yurio, Yuri goes to see his old ballet coach to teach him to be more feminine on the ice. He saw himself more as a seductress than a playboy. He even calls himself the most beautiful woman. Neither of these men are super hung up on their masculinity and that is so refreshing in a world where men in fiction need to be so James Bond about their sexuality. Gender fluidity is a large part of this show’s appeal to me because we don’t get much of that at all in Western entertainment. 

Yuri and Victor are very affectionate with each other in public. Their intimacy is shown in very small but significant ways. Victor isn’t afraid of holding Yuri or touching his face. It cannot be a secret to everyone else in this world that these boys are romantically involved. But the announcers or reporters never talk about it. It’s not a scandal or a even a topic of conversation. The show has gotten some heat for not depicting homophobia as many queer couples experience it in real life. That’s understandable. But the absence of homophobia is something that I really enjoy about this show. In this world, we can have queer characters who can exist as peacefully as their heterosexual counterparts. Most of the queer stories we do have make homophobia a large theme. It’s nice to take a break and have some lighthearted entertainment that doesn’t focus on tragedy and trauma while still representing us. It depicts the world we want to live in.

The concept of The Male Gaze is a term in film studies to explain the way the camera takes on the perspective of a heterosexual male, sexualizing the female body. It’s something you never notice until someone points it out and then you can’t stop seeing it. But it’s flipped in Yuri!!! On Ice. We’ve got so many butt shots of all these men, I could make a scrapbook. And don’t get me started on the hot spring scenes with Victor. The masculine body is portrayed as sexual and desirable which is a vast difference from how the male body is portrayed in the kind of shows I’m used to. I’m used to seeing idealized male bodies as disgustingly buff and rugged. YOI portrays the male body as lean and graceful. I’d take that over some bulging muscle powerhouse dude any day. 

It's not subtle, guys. 
I also love that the show doesn’t really have a villain. The closest thing we have is Yuri’s rival, Yurio, and by the end, we’re even rooting for that bratty kid. The major conflict of this show isn’t character vs character, it’s character vs self. Isn’t that so much more compelling? And the whole cast of characters are friendly to each other, even if they’re competitors. I actually care about them as well, which is difficult when you have such a dazzling main couple. 

Just dazzling
There is a trope in queer media that queer couples can never have happy endings. So often our stories are told with tragedy, which makes sense given the way queer-identifying folks are treated in many parts of the world. But it’s rare that story about queer people gets a happy ending. Does YOI have a happy ending? I can see where people might debate that, but I didn’t walk away feeling anything but pure glee. Finally, a story with a queer couple that wasn’t fetishized or villainized or traumatized. They were happy. I was so desperate for that. Especially now, in these scary times.

What I learned is that my prejudice against anime was just that. Do I still struggle with some of the parts that turned me away in the first place? Yes. But it was never about the medium, it was about the story. If you’ve got a story as good as Yuri!!! On Ice, it shouldn’t matter which format it comes in, what country it came from. And it sure has done a lot to open up my mind. From here I might go on to watch other heavily recommended anime shows that I’ve turned down. I’m thankful to Yuri!!! On Ice for doing that for me and so much more.

So that’s what YOI looks like out of a western lens. I’m curious how it compares to other anime trends. Anime fans, let me know in the comments what you think about YOI and if you have any recommendations you’d think I’d like!


  1. Preach! YOI is amazing, and we all know it. :D

  2. Aaa, I'm so happy to see a post about Yuri on Ice on here! As it happens, in Japan, it's very rare for a non-fetishized queer relationship to be present in a popular series like this and not be classified as yaoi (which is basically a fetishized genre solely centered around male x male relationships). This show, as stated in the opening theme, was making history in Japan. Honestly, one of the best shows for getting into anime, as well. While there are things like Naruto, yes, there are many other deep shows out there with complex stories. If you like the sports genre aspect, I'd recommend Free! or Haikyuu. If you want an offbeat comedy/action/adventure try Mob Psycho 100 (get past episode two or three--episode one is kinda weird). Some cute romantic comedies that are MUST sees are Ouran High School Host Club (this got me into anime, tbh) and Toradora (this one is just the cutest thing I have seen not counting YOI). If you want a good mystery/drama that will rip your heart out (in a good way. . .usually) try Erased. I need to get off before I recommend everything I've seen. But great post and it's interesting to hear from the perspective of someone who doesn't generally watch anime.

    1. I'm glad you enjoyed it! I'm a huge sci-fi fan and I'm currently watching Cowboy BeeBop with my partner. I hear there are some truly incredible sci-fi anime shows but I'm also a sucker for mystery so I might just check out Erased too!